Can You Outsource Social Media?

The act of outsourcing your social media efforts is a bold one. It offers both the peace of mind of putting an initiative into the hands of experts while at the same time exposing your company to the risk of losing control of your message and relationships. It is always a mistake to outsource anything rashly, to dust your hands and walk away hoping for the best. But if you've defined your goals and strategy, if your outsourcer is accountable, and if you maintain ownership of the message, outsourcing all—or preferably part—of your social initiative can be done with great success.

An Ovum research report identifies a big uptick is social CRM services, particularly for telcos, public sector and travel/tourism companies. According to Ovum analyst, Peter Ryan "There is certainly demand for social media CRM services that outsourcers can take advantage of, particularly in the travel and tourism and telecoms sectors." The report identified social media monitoring, customer service and business development as top services CRM outsourcers should provide to help grow their business and revenue.

But suppose you are so new to social media that you haven't done the strategic groundwork? "Until you know your objectives and strategies, you're not going to choose the right technology solution set," says Kathy Herrmann, an independent social media consultant based in northern Virginia, "you're not going to know what processes you need to support it nor do you know what kind of social channels you need to show up in. The right consultant or agency can help you get started."

3 Social Media Outsourcing Models

From his experience Blake Cahill, president of Banyan Branch, a boutique social media agency based in Seattle, has observed three ways companies or brands put their toes in the social media waters.

  1. Out there and afraid. This type of company has entered the social arena without a plan, strategy or goals. "They feel exposed and paranoid," says Cahill, "because once you're out there you have to stay out there."
  2. Out there randomly. This type of company has launched the platforms and checked the box. "Yeah, we have the Twitter handle and the Facebook page," says Cahill, "but they're not very strategic in how they have created the investment and tied it back to their existing marketing goals."
  3. Out there and owning the space. These companies were out there early either directly or partnered well with agencies and are running circles around every one else. "They are much further along from an adoption perspective," says Cahill, "They have an understanding of why they're out there, and they're maniacally focused on what they are getting from their investments in these online communities."

The hope is that outsourcing social media with a strategic partner from the early stages can spare you the valuable time wasted in the first two places.

The Social Media Outsourcing Evolution

Many companies follow a progressive pattern when it comes to outsourcing social media. Cahill finds that the initiative for being on social platforms often begins within marketing. "Unfortunately, marketing is not set up to do moderation and response to massive volumes of customer interactions. Until the call center, which has the resources to scale, gets involved, you see a lot of outsourcing support for the brand and its campaigns."

The evolution of outsourcing can be broken into three stages.

  • Early stage: Use your outsourcer for set up and strategy. Work with them to create specific goals and measurements. Have them do basic social monitoring. They will help you discover where your customers communicate beyond Twitter and Facebook. Put in place a process for forwarding opportunities to the sales team and escalating problems or negative conversations into your call center.
  • Developing Stage: Bring the conversation in-house to your call center. Get to know who and where your social advocates or champions are and use them to promote your brand, rewarding them along the way. Leverage social listening tools to monitor customer sentiment. Use your agency to develop traditional and social marketing campaigns and to move forward strategically.
  • Mature Stage: By this time you have created a strategic partnership with your social outsourcer. They are at your table from the inception of new marketing initiatives, which are mapped back to how you've decided to measure success: with coupon redemptions, click throughs to shopping carts or landing page conversions. The customer relationship, however, is now in-house. Your advocates and peer networks are taking some of the load off customer service by helping other customers solve problems—as well as provide first hand testaments to new sales prospects.

Choosing a Marketing Agency

Agency selection must be based on strategic criteria and goals rather than tactical ideas. In his article, How to Hire a Social Media Boutique Agency, Sean Corcoran of Forrester writes, "…random tactical uses of social media rarely work: The web is littered with abandoned communities and social network profiles that failed to meet the providers promise. If your agencies are building social ghost towns, you know it's time to hire a specialist."

Most large advertising and branding agencies have developed social practices. Kathy Herrmann suggests both Edelman and Weber for their planning and execution of social campaigns. At the other end are small social boutique agencies such as Ignite Social Media, Banyan Branch, Digital Influence Group, and We Are Social.

These marketing agencies live and breathe social media. But in the end, whether you use an old guard or boutique agency, accountability is a key success factor for a long term partnership. "Banyan Branch came to me with not only creative ideas, but with the willingness to measure and monitor their own success or failure," says Kim Johnston of her agency selection process.

Social Metrics - Some are Effective, Many are Not

The conventional wisdom that ROI on social media investments cannot be measured is showing some wear. Smart agencies have learned how to set up social marketing campaigns with specific, measurable, financial criteria. The idea according to Banyan's Cahill is to go beyond vanity measures such as Likes, fans and followers and map back to preexisting metrics the brand has already been using. "You have to," says Cahill, "otherwise what's the ROI on this stuff?

In the end you want to either create sales or, if you're trying to shift the sentiment of your brand, get favorable sentiment like a net promoter score or the favorability of your brand as compared to a competitor's. These are great metrics."

Social media metrics are always easier when a coupon or a shopping cart is attached to the brand measure. "In greater than 75 percent of our client projects we tie back to some form of selling," says Cahill, "which could be a coupon download that gets redeemed, a social-only offer, or click through to a shopping cart. That's what we focus on. The social metrics are nice to have but those are indicators, not measurements."

A Social Media Outsourcing Case Study

When a carefully orchestrated product release was marred by a retailer that displayed the product a week early, Kim Johnston, vice president of marketing at technology company Parallels, felt her hand was forced to release the product ahead of schedule, a move that would have compromised her channel partners.

"We had synchronized the new release of Parallels Desktop for Mac across all channels including online, retail, e-tail and resellers across the globe," says Johnston. "And son of a gun if a box didn't show up a week early in a store in the U.S."

It was one of Parallel's social media champions who found the product, photographed it and posted it. Within 24 hours it reached a million online exposures. Johnston was astonished at the response and wanted to make good on all the positive energy for the product. She considered releasing it early but "we just weren't ready to go for another week," she explains. "If we turned on our website early with the product, we would be compromising our resellers, which we didn't want to do. We're very channel friendly."

After much thought and discussion within the company and with their social marketing agency, Banyan Branch, with whom they develop social media strategy and execution, Parallel decided to make the upgrade-only product available a week early online, which didn't affect the channels. "To existing customers we were able to say here is the latest and greatest for our upgrade," Johnston says. "We had tremendous reception from our customer base. It was a very positive and powerful social media experience."

It also gave Parallel an opportunity to observe the connection of ROI and social media and to confirm the power of social network outreach they had developed with their outsourcing partner.